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Surface Tension

Honey Osrin of Plymouth competes in the Women’s 50m Backstroke heats during the Edinburgh International Swim meet incorporating the British Championships at The Royal Commonwealth Pool on March 1, 2018 in Edinburgh, Scotland – Photo: Ian MacNicol

Captured on camera as they’re about to break the surface of the water, some Olympic swimmers seem to be perfectly wrapped in glass or clear gel, because of a physical phenomenon called surface tension.

It’s the tendency of liquid surfaces to shrink into the minimum surface area possible. The same force allowing insects — e.g. water striders — to float and slide on a water surface, without becoming even partly submerged. Because of the relatively high attraction of water molecules to each other through a web of hydrogen bonds, water has a higher surface tension — 72.8 millinewtons per meter at 20 °C — than most other liquids.

Katinka Hosszu of Hungary competes in the second Semifinal of the Women’s 100m Backstroke on Day 2 of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games at the Olympic Aquatics Stadium on August 7, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil – Photo: Clive Rose/Getty Images
Gaurika Singh of Nepal competes in the Women’s 100m Backstroke heat on Day 2 of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games at the Olympic Aquatics Stadium on August 7, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil – Photo: Al Bello/Getty Images
Tyler Clary of the United States competes in the Men’s 200m Backstroke Final during Day Fourteen of the 14th FINA World Championships at the Oriental Sports Center on July 29, 2011 in Shanghai, China – Photo: Adam Pretty/Getty Images
Emily Seebohm of Australia competes in the Women’s 100m Backstroke heat on Day 2 of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games at the Olympic Aquatics Stadium on August 7, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil – Photo: Al Bello/Getty Images
Ryan Murphy of the United States competes in the Men’s 100m Backstroke heat on Day 2 of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games at the Olympic Aquatics Stadium on August 7, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil – Photo: Al Bello/Getty Images

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